For years, the U.S.-run prison at Bagram had been reviled and feared, and at least two detainees died while being held there. Detainees were until recently “housed in primitive pens made from cages surrounded by razor wire,” says Jonathan Horowitz, a researcher who has visited the place and whose work is supported by Open Society Institute. The prison now has a new name, Detention Facility in Parwan, and detainees are given brightly lit rooms, neatly pressed sheets on their beds and prayer blankets. On a broader scale, Americans are trying to make the detention system more transparent, creating a FaceBook page to showcase work, and they are planning to turn the system over to the Afghans in the next year or so.
The military recently invited journalists to a trial at Parwan, the first one that the Afghan government had held at the prison. The chief judge sentenced four men to prison for bomb-making, as The New York Times’ Alissa J. Rubin reported, while American lawyers and officers in the next room watched the proceedings on closed-circuit television set.
Handing over the detention system to the Afghans is already underway in other quarters, and the results are mixed. Dozens of Parwan detainees are sent to Pul-e-Charkhi, a facility located outside Kabul that has been renovated with U.S. government funds. Afghan trials are held for some prisoners, although the trials are based on largely evidence collected by the Americans, and the justice is uneven: Afghan guards allegedly pulled 16 men out of their cells one night in 2007 and executed them. Human rights advocates believe that the problems with the detention facilities, and the trials that are being held at Pul-e-Charkhi, are emblematic of a weak justice system that lies at the heart of Afghan instability.
“We are funneling billions of dollars into Afghanistan, and one of the main points of focus is strengthening Afghanistan’s rules of law,” says OSI’s Horowitz. “One of the reasons Afghans have shown sympathy for the Taliban is because of the way they bring speedy, although brutal, form of justice to communities, so even if the U.S. wasn’t handing its detainees and evidence files over to Afghans, there’s strong reason to be concerned about fairness.”
Experts believe that the chances of having an equitable, Afghan-run justice system in place by next year is unlikely. Americans may choose to leave at that point, but afterward the justice system may well deteriorate, sending the country into another downward spiral.